Penn State's Saquon Barkley lifts himself to the top

Penn State's Saquon Barkley lifts himself to the top

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley bobs his head to Drake's "Started at the Bottom" as he stands over a barbell loaded to 380 pounds.

The Penn State running back takes a step back and adjusts his shorts before bending down and taking a firm grip on the bar with both hands. With his chin up, back flat and knees bent, Barkley tugs on the gray steel, searching for just the right amount of tension in his arms.

Up it goes.

Barkley uncoils, and then quickly dips under the weight and back into squat, slipping the bar under his chin and onto his deltoids. His quads bulging, Barkley stands up straight to complete the power clean. He drops the bar to the mat, takes a couple breaths and repeats the feat twice more with relative ease.

A case can be made that Barkley is both the best and strongest running back in college football. To Barkley, he could not be the former without also being the latter. The broken tackles. The razor-sharp cuts that leave linebackers limp. The hurdles over and sprints past defensive backs. Everything Barkley does to send 100,000 Nittany Lions fans into a frenzy at Beaver Stadium can be traced back to the hours he has spent in the weight room, turning his body into a 228-pound NFL prototype.

"I'm a firm believer that the work you put in in the weight room translates to the field," Barkley said. "Some people don't really think it correlates. A lot of people think you have to do football specific stuff and that's true. But I think football is a direct correlation with weightlifting. I think the stuff that you do -- the explosive movements, the leg strength -- helps you finish plays. Helps you break tackles."

Coming off a sophomore season in which he ran for 1,496 yards, scored 22 touchdowns and helped the Nittany Lions finish in the top 10 for the first time since 2009, Barkley was overwhelmingly selected to the AP's preseason All-America team released Tuesday.

Barkley's passion for pumping iron was cultivated in a cement basement with no air conditioning beneath the fieldhouse of his eastern Pennsylvania high school. Whitehall was the smallest school in the state's highest classification when Barkley was there.

Going back to the days when former NFL linebacker and Penn State star Matt Millen played at Whitehall, the Zephyrs have tried to make up the difference in the weight room.

"We were going against bigger schools and teams that had more players and had more opportunities to pick from players so we knew for us to win games we had to push ourselves," Barkley said.

Barkley did not walk into Whitehall as a star. He wasn't one of those kids who flashed NFL potential while dominating youth leagues the way Leonard Fournette did before becoming an All-American at LSU and a first-round draft pick by Jacksonville. Barkley was a talented 160-pounder trying to contribute on both sides of the ball during his first two seasons at Whitehall. After his sophomore season, coach Brian Gilbert challenged Barkley to become a leader in the weight room.

Barkley accepted.

"We finish the weight room, typically guys they come in, they break down, they go home. His offseason going into his junior year, he would say `Who wants to stay after?'" Gilbert said. '"Coach how long you going to stay after?' And they just kept doing workouts after our workouts. And they would go out to the field and do footwork drills. And that would turn into, `Hey, who wants to come in Saturday? Who wants to come in Sunday?'"

Barkley gained 30 pounds and had a breakthrough junior season. It only made him want to do more and it wasn't just the physical gains that changed Barkley's game.

"His confidence level went up because of his strength," Gilbert said.

Barkley went from a hidden-gem who was committed to Rutgers after an early offer to one of the top recruits in Pennsylvania, with Penn State making him a priority. Still, Barkley was listed as only the 14th-best running back in the 2015 recruiting class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

On the walls of Penn State's climate-controlled, 13,000-square foot weight room, high above the equipment, hangs the Nittany Lions' scoreboard: Player rankings by position and team-wide of various lifts and speed and agility drills going back to 2013.

Barkley's name is on top of all eight categories on the running back chart. He wants to be top three in each category for all players. On a late spring day, he held the No. 1 spot in half the categories, including a 390-pound power clean. His 600-pound squat ranked third behind only a couple of former Penn State linemen.

"To be able to do that and then go out and run a 4.33 (40-yard dash), that's where it gets like, OK, is this guy from Krypton or is this guy from America?" Penn State strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said.

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki had recently knocked Barkley off the broad-jump board with a leap of 10 feet, 11 inches.

"I haven't got over that," Barkley said.

Still, Barkley was feeling pretty good about eventually passing the 445-pound bench press of Austin Johnson, now a 315-pound nose tackle for the Tennessee Titans. Barkley's lifting partner, fellow running back Andre Robinson, said trying to keep up with Barkley is great motivation, even if a little frustrating at times.

Robinson said thought he had a chance to beat Barkley this year on the bench, where Penn State players do as many repetitions of 225 pounds as possible.

"I beat him a couple of weeks, I'd do like one or two reps more than him. And then the last week of spring ball we tested and he did like six more than me out of the blue. Out of nowhere after I'd been doing just as many as him every week," Robinson said. "It's just crazy how he can turn the switch on and get things done."

This all bodes well not just for No. 6 Penn State's season, but for Barkley's NFL draft status as elite running backs are finding themselves valued more of late. Dallas took Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016. This April, Fournette went No. 4 and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey was picked eighth.

Barkley might be an even better prospect.

"The freakish numbers that he puts up in the weight room, all of that shows up on the field," Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. "There's not a disconnect between how he tests in the weight room and what that performance is and how he applies it on the field."

Back in June, Galt and Penn State coach James Franklin had decided that Barkley's one-rep power clean max of 390 pounds was good enough. There was no need to let him to do more even though he probably could. Barkley seemed cool with that.

"We're football players, we're not power lifters," he said.

Two weeks later, Barkley did 405.

Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

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Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Flavor Flav had his red cap flipped backward as he pulled out his iPhone on the Madison Square Garden court. Flav held the camera steady and recorded cousin Shep Garner clip the final strands of the championship net and wave it toward the Penn State die-hards.

Flav's T-shirt at the NIT said it all for the Nittany Lions: Believe the hype!

Garner hit the 3-pointer that brought rapper and reality star Flavor Flav to his feet and helped send Penn State on its way to an NIT title in an 82-66 victory over Utah on Thursday night.

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (26-13) also knocked off No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the tournament en route to winning their first NIT title since 2009.

"This means the whole world to me right now ," Flavor Flav said.

They were pretty pumped in Happy Valley, too.

"I think we set the standard," Garner said. "We preach defense and rebounding, but now we have something we can always go to. We won something. We're champions."

Flavor Flav, member of the seminal `80s rap group Public Enemy, sang along to "Fight the Power" as it blasted in the Garden and had the PSU student section chanting "Flav! Flav! Flav!" as the Nittany Lions pulled away for a program-defining championship under coach Pat Chambers.

Lamar Stevens scored 28 points, Josh Reaves had 18 and Tony Carr had 15 points and 14 assists for Penn State.

Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center has a long-standing reputation as one of the dreariest arenas in college basketball. Penn State fans, from rappers to silver-haired alumni, packed the Garden all the way to the last row of the upper deck.

Penn State football coach James Franklin, who led the program to a Pinstripe Bowl victory in 2014, was in the house. Flavor Flav stole the show a few rows behind the PSU bench. Wearing a T-shirt that read "33 Shep Garner," Flavor Flav danced all night in his seat. Flavor Flav popped his T-shirt and raised the roof in the same arena where Public Enemy once tore down the house.

"I think we've proven to teams across the country that Penn State basketball is here to stay," Chambers said.

The clutch moment came in the third quarter when Garner -- who became Penn State's career 3-point leader in the tournament run -- hit a 3 for his first basket of the game and a 49-41 lead that had the fans going wild.

"To see my cousin break records, win trophies, all that, he deserves it," Flavor Flav said. "The whole team deserves it."

Reaves hit a crashing layup on a three-point play that stretched the lead to 11 and Stevens wagged his tongue toward the PSU fans on a jumper that helped blow open the game.

Flavor Flav raised an arm in the air when Garner sank a 3 early in the fourth for a 68-49 edge that all but put this one away.

The final minutes certainly put some flava in your ear -- half the MSG crowd chanted "We Are!" and the other half bellowed "Penn State!"

Yeah, boy!

Sedrick Barefield hit six 3s and scored 22 points for second-seeded Utah (23-12).

"You're always kind of watching the NIT and maybe you think of it as the consolation prize or whatever," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "They have no idea how cool this was for us."

Big picture
Utah: David Collette, Justin Bibbins and Tyler Rawson are among the seniors moving on. ... Bibbins scored 15 points.

Penn State: Stevens reached 1,000 career points was named most outstanding player. ... Chambers, a former assistant coach under Jay Wright at Villanova, took over in 2011 and has struggled to find any kind of regular success. The Nittany Lions have never made the NCAA Tournament under Chambers and they'll have just their second winning record in seven seasons. But Penn State's 26 wins are second-highest in program history. The Nittany Lions won a record 27 games in 2008-09.

Big crowd
The 11,175 fans at MSG were the most for an NIT final since 2005.

"And you say we're a football school," Chambers cracked.

Something different
The NIT was a bit of a mad scientist in the college basketball lab. The game featured four 10-minute quarters. The tournament also implemented the FIBA 3-point line (22 feet, 1.75 inches), NBA-width lane of 16 inches, and a 20-second shot clock following offensive rebounds.

Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

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Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Nearly a month after Penn State was bounced out of the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions are back at Madison Square Garden with another chance to win a championship.

Tony Carr scored 21 points, Shep Garner added 18 while breaking the school record for career 3-pointers and Penn State routed Mississippi State 75-60 in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals Tuesday night.

"Of course we were a little disappointed not to make the (NCAA) Tournament, but we made another goal," Garner said. "We saw we were in the NIT and our goal was to get to New York and win it. That's what everyone wants to do. We put ourselves in position to do so."

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (25-13) will play No. 2 seed Utah for the title Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

After the score was tied 9-all, Penn State ended the first quarter on a 9-2 run. From there, the Nittany Lions opened the second with a 19-0 spurt capped by Garner's 3 off an assist from Carr to make it 37-11.

With football coach James Franklin cheering from the stands, Penn State went up 42-23 at halftime and led by as many as 27.

Mississippi State (25-12) wasn't able to get within 20 again until there was 7:56 left in the game. Abdul Ado's dunk made it 65-47, but that was the closest the Bulldogs got before the waning moments.

"We were really impatient," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "Once we started falling behind, we got anxious and we were shooting quick. Quick, bad shots and it just like, snowballed."

Tyson Carter scored 19 points off the bench to lead No. 4 seed Mississippi State. Ado had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Lamar Stevens scored 17 for Penn State, which shot 11 of 20 from 3-point territory. Carr had six assists and five rebounds.

Big picture
Penn State: While the Nittany Lions would have preferred to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, they made the NIT for the first time under seventh-year coach Pat Chambers. Penn State's last trip to the NIT title game was in 2009, when it beat Baylor for the crown. The school's only other appearance in the final was a loss to Minnesota in 1998.

Mississippi State: With just one senior on the roster, the Bulldogs will return most of their team and have something positive to build off as they try to move up the rankings in the rugged SEC next season.

Record producer
With his six 3-pointers, Garner broke Penn State's record for 3s in an NIT along with the school mark of 332 held by Pete Lisicky (1995-98). Garner also had six 3s in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Purdue, giving him 12 in his last two games at Madison Square Garden and 334 for his career.

"They say the record is an individual record, but I've had a lot of teammates that had a lot to do with the record," Garner said. "A lot of people that set screens for me to get me open, break passes to them, they put it right on the button for me and I just finish the job. That's a team record. It's a lot of people that had stuff to do with it. I tip my hat to my teammates and my coaches to put me in a position to do something special like that."

Up next
Penn State: Will try to win the second NIT championship in school history when it faces Utah (23-11), which beat Western Kentucky 69-64 in the first semifinal.

Mississippi State: Starts preparing for a promising 2018-19 season.